COMMENT: Another year done and we’re all still here – just about. Site editor DARRYL CHAMBERLAIN looks back, tries to find a way forward and tells you what’s making him angry at the moment.
Well, here we are again. Thank you, once again, for your brilliant support of 853 and original journalism over the past year. We’re the only ones doing it, and you’re helping to keep it alive. And welcome to the annual round-up that nobody reads.
It’s been a lively 12 months, and a worrying one as the pandemic cloud finally cleared to be replaced by an all-consuming cost of living crisis that feels like it’s only just begun.
With this in mind, I’m hugely grateful to all those who contribute a little bit of money to the site each month. It makes this into a part-time job and also means I can pay other contributors from time to time, so we can keep publishing original reporting. So far, we’re weathering the storm, but it’s early days yet.
Your support also means we don’t depend on ads, which gives us a fair amount of security. If you can spare less than the price of a pint of lager (or less than half an hour of London Living Wage) each month and would like to support original, local and transparent journalism, visit steadyhq.com/853 or presspatron.com/853.
Our page views are slightly down this year, but that reflects us publishing a little less. Part of this is because the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service, which we used to use a lot of material from, hasn’t really come up with the goods this year. The LDRS, which supplies stories to us daily, is meant to cover the day-to-day business of councils, with publishers given money to employ what should be dedicated reporters. But in our part of the world, the service is being used to prop up the general output of MyLondon and the Evening Standard. In particular, reporters at the former are expected to come up with regular “furious resident” stories and other dismal vox-pops which shine a light on nothing apart from the shortcomings of corporate local journalism. It’s an issue Private Eye covered in July.
One low point came in early September when one of our original stories, about the approval of the Tesco tower in Woolwich – seven hours of watching the meeting and writing it up – was rewritten and distributed back to us and to other outlets who receive the wire. Only a lack of time (I was literally packing bags to go on holiday) stopped me from sending in the mother of all invoices for repeated copyright infringement, although we did get an apology.
I must emphasise that none of this is to blame current or past reporters, many of whom are under a lot of pressure to deliver page views. The fault lies further up.
At least that fiasco indicates we’re doing something right. We will continue to press for improvements – other London independents are also angry about this – but it’s a lonely fight. MyLondon and the Standard’s ability to take advantage of licence fee funding in this way – without sanction – shows how the odds are stacked against small operations like ours.
We keep going, though. Things have changed in the decade since we first started scrutinising the council – much of the bullying (both overt and covert) has gone. A decade ago, our coverage was unremittingly hostile to what was an unpleasant and domineering council leadership which acted as if it was born to rule.
Things have changed since then – a gradual evolution rather than a revolution – as new generations of councillors have come into the town hall. Finally, Greenwich feels more like an inner London Labour council rather than some weird outpost.
The stale old failings of insularity, complacency and arrogance haven’t quite gone away, exemplified by the town hall’s ridiculous “Royal Greenwich” branding. And secrecy remains the default attitude in key departments – but at least there’s a willingness to acknowledge that some things should change. It’s our job to push this along and keep highlighting where things go wrong so they can be better in future.
Our top stories of the year reflect the key challenges we face across south London – transport, infrastructure, housing and, after a scorching summer, its sustainability. Much of which demonstrates how we’ve been failed on so many levels by leaders on all sides, many of whom continue to let us down, particularly in central government and City Hall.
But the only way to guarantee failure is to sit back and do nothing, to cling to the comfort blanket of cynicism. Many stories on this website should be a call to action if you feel strongly enough, whether it’s emailing your councillors or MPs or by banding together with others. Otherwise, all this is a bit pointless.
I especially want to thank thank those readers who tip us off about stories – we can’t chase them all up, in fact, there’s only the time to chase a handful up. But all emails are appreciated and they this website much stronger than it should be – some of those tip-offs made the Top 22 list below.
In the new year, I’m hoping to find a reporter who can go a bit deeper into some of the issues I don’t have the capacity to cover (know a housing specialist? Get in touch!) There may also be a new look to the website too, if I can find the time.
So, what were the most popular stories of the year? Here goes…
1. We aren’t cutting SE London’s trains to help Tories in Kent, says Southeastern boss (21 October)
Stories about trains and buses often do well in our part of town. This is largely because our transport has historically been crap compared with the rest of London. Government-enforced rail cuts turned the clock back to the days of long waits and inconvenient services.
For all the Tories’ culpability here, there was genuine anger and bewilderment across the parties. Local Conservative leader Matt Hartley deserves credit for a petition to restore the well-used “loop line” services linking New Eltham and Abbey Wood.
Southeastern bosses sat and took three hours of anger from councillors and residents and this was the only outlet to cover it in person. Similar cuts took place on Southern’s services earlier in the year – putting all of south London at a huge disadvantage to Tube-dominated north London, where they pay less for a better service.
This story’s not going away, but passengers will if the cuts aren’t reversed soon – and we’ll all pay the price.
2. Greenwich to Woolwich bus services to be halved from next weekend (4 May)
The Tories weren’t the only ones attacking our public transport options. Rerouting the key 180 bus service was planned before the pandemic, and the cut to services between Greenwich, Woolwich and Plumstead was finally implemented in May. The cuts by Sadiq Khan’s TfL were announced during the local election campaign and may well have cost Labour some votes.
3. Quiet Halloween in fenced-off Woolwich but firework fights hit Greenwich Peninsula (1 November)
One challenge for Greenwich Council’s new leader, Anthony Okereke, is taking ownership of unpopular decisions – something his predecessors had failed to do. It’s hard to think of another part of London where public spaces are fenced off for two weeks on the off-chance of trouble. The council pointed the finger at the police, the police wouldn’t respond to media queries (and are, at present, denying even receiving them). If you’re a leader – or any other senior councillor – you need to take ownership of this.
4. Anthony Okereke beats Danny Thorpe to be new Greenwich Council leader (11 May)
A shock to those who followed the carefully curated world of the council press office and Thorpe’s own social media – but the signs were there all along. Trying to both support and oppose the Silvertown Tunnel made both Thorpe and his council look ridiculous, as did Thorpe’s lashing out last year at perfectly sensible questions about the money spent on Woolwich Works. Anthony Okereke’s election tilted the balance of power back to the north of the borough for the first time in two decades and made him one of the youngest leaders in London.
5. Thames Path in Greenwich town centre now closed for four months (23 May)
It was closed, but now it’s open again.
6. Parking war looms as Bexley objects to charging Oxleas Woods drivers (28 December)
A late, late entry and one that’s still rising up the chart. We don’t usually do parking problems or drivers’ moans – people in cars have it easy compared to those trying to navigate this city by other means. But it’s always interesting when boroughs fall out. The mayor was called in to adjudicate the last time Greenwich and Bexley rowed over parking, so this one will probably run and run. Incidentally, the car park in the woods remains free, but be careful where you search for it online…
7. Damp forces tenants out of new Greenwich Council-baced homes in Eltham (22 February)
A tip-off led to a trip down Rochester Way to see problems at much-vaunted new homes built by Meridian Home Start, a company spun off from Greenwich to build homes at slightly above council rent. The homes ended up being empty for much of the year.
8. Hold tight! Woolwich’s refurbished Tramshed is starting its new journey (from Nikki Spencer – 13 December)
It’s a treat to have arts writer Nikki Spencer on board, and her piece on the revamped Tramshed hit a huge chord with our readers. Pop in if you get the chance – it’s a terrific space and one that will only improve when the new Woolwich leisure centre opens next door, giving it even more room.
9. Greenwich and Charlton’s segregated Cycleway 4 to remain with changes (24 February)
Continuing the local transport theme, it looks as if the cycle route along Woolwich Road is here to stay. Tweaking the route took all summer and beyond, and more work will need to be done on the junction at Vanbrugh Hill. But attention will soon move to Greenwich town centre, and just how TfL and Greenwich Council fill the gap in what’s becoming a direct route right into central London.
10. Planned Silvertown Tunnel bus network revealed – without promised route to Eltham (21 October)
The big Southeastern meeting came with this surprise at the end. When Sadiq Khan promised a “public transport-focused tunnel”, nobody really quite expected that public transport to be coming from Grove Park and barely stopping in the borough of Greenwich, whose councillors had lobbied for the new road to be built.
11. Greenwich Council completes its U-turn and scraps Hills & Vales low-traffic zone (23 February)
A total mess and one that shattered trust in the council in the streets of west Greenwich. New plans to deal with traffic in the narrow streets around the park are expected in the coming months.
12. No Blackheath fireworks for 2022 with sponsors needed if display returns (13 October)
Government cuts and Covid finally did for the much-loved display, with little sign – so far – that Greenwich Council is interested in offering the help that its counterparts in Lewisham would need to bring the display back.
13. Greenwich Council election results 2022: Tories left reeling as Labour surge to record win (6 May)
Sleaze in Downing Street did for the blues of Eltham High Street as the local Tories came within a few votes of being totally wiped out. If the election had been held a few months later, they’d have gone completely. Whatever you think of the Tories, the near one-party state isn’t healthy – meaning it’s down to all of us to scrutinise and get to know what goes on in the town hall. The Greens came incredibly close in East Greenwich – meaning the area now has three of the most visible Labour councillors in the borough. There’s a lesson for everyone in that.
14. Wheelie bin U-turn as Greenwich Councils scraps cuts to recycling collections (23 August)
Councillors – and council leaders – often say one thing. Then council officers do another. So a sudden cut to recycling collections came as a surprise when councillors were leading a drive for more recycling. A screeching U-turn followed, but the episode showed where power often really lies within the council. Another thing the new leader will need to look at.
15. Star & Garter: Greenwich locals start campaign to buy closed pub (1 April)
We were glad to help publicise an appeal to revive the troubled Star & Garter in the backstreets of Greenwich, although things went quiet not long afterwards. A renamed pub got its licence back later in the year.
16. TfL backs pedestrian-friendly Greenwich town centre with £250,000 grant (24 November)
It feels like we’re a long way off from concrete proposals for central Greenwich, but TfL has picked up from where it left off before the pandemic. Market traders are not happy about the idea of pedestrianising part of the town centre.
17. Greenwich Council election 2022: What to watch for as counting begins (6 May)
A holding story published the day after the election picked up stupendous page views as people searched for the results. Newsflash: people actually are interested in this kind of thing.
18. Cycleway to Woolwich gets green light but Angerstein roundabout stays in place (27 October)
Positive news for those who want to ride a bike in peace, but the plans depend on future funding – which is by no means certain – and the Woolwich Ferry roundabout’s not much of a terminal. Vague plans are starting to emerge to take the cycle route towards Plumstead, but nothing is set in stone yet. Meanwhile, the Angerstein roundabout was tossed into the “too difficult” pile.
19. Greenwich planning chair who approved Morden Wharf joins firm working on project (8 August)
It’s lazy to be cynical about local politics, but when a controversial councillor disappears to work with a company involved in a highly-contentious development that he approved on a casting vote, it drags everyone through the mud. Labour’s Stephen Brain broke no rules or laws. But he is still raging against entitled and greedy Tories on Twitter, entirely oblivious to the shadow his own actions have cast over his local party and the wider planning process.
20. Watchdog and MPs unhappy as Tory cuts hit Southeastern services (29 September)
There was actually a “media briefing” about this a few days beforehand to which the Evening Standard, News Shopper and BBC London were invited. (We weren’t on the list.) None of them bothered to turn up. It took nine weeks for the Standard to pick up on the story.
21. Former Greenwich councillor Liz Truss to become prime minister (5 September)
Well, that went well, didn’t it?
22. Vote Jasmine: Rejected candidate’s billboard as shocks Greenwich Tories (3 May)
This was my favourite story of the year – the phantom candidate who took out newspaper ads (in an area with no real local newspapers) and put up a huge billboard to implore passers-by to vote for her.
Coming next year: we’ll see the fall-out from the rail cuts, fortnightly bin collections will hit Greenwich (from February), you’ll become familiar with the words “estate infill” (building new council blocks on small pockets of land in existing estates) as rows over this grow, and we’ll see what plans finally appear to deal with traffic in west and east Greenwich. We’re also likely to see planning decisions on the Leegate redevelopment and the Ikea car park scheme – but with a recession on, who knows?
And that’s another year done. Thanks for your support – see you next year.
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